Today’s Royal Navy has two aircraft carriers with which to take aircraft to sea.
These two vessels, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are the largest surface vessels ever built in the UK and each 280-metre-long ship normally has space for 40 aircraft on a four-acre flight deck, and over 70 aircraft at maximum capacity.
Also impressive, though in a different way, is the fact that the UK had a predecessor to the Elizabeth class over 100 years ago: the first true aircraft carrier, HMS Argus.
Indeed, having once been the pre-eminent global sea power, it makes sense that Britain was a pioneer in this area. Although, this in and of itself was never a guarantee that the development of naval aviation and aircraft-carrier technology would be an arena in which the British would always lead.
The American Eugene Ely was in fact the first person to complete both the first successful launch and landing of an aircraft aboard a ship, doing so as early as 1910 and 1911.
But Ely’s premature death later in 1911 meant that the US would no longer be the leaders in shipboard aviation, and the torch passed instead to the Europeans, and in this Britain led the pack.
In fact, in at least one way, the Royal Navy’s efforts predated Ely’s. They had constructed their own airship meant for naval aviation in 1909; in 1912 they also managed their own plane launch from the deck of a ship (HMS Africa); and in 1914 they established the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), a forerunner, along with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), to the RAF.
The First (Partial) Aircraft Carriers
However, these developments did not continue in a straight line to the first aircraft carrier.
Instead, the Royal Navy next focused its efforts on the development of seaplanes and the ships to run alongside them.
As Mark Lardas explains in ‘World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers’:
“On 7 May 1913 the Royal Navy commissioned its first aviation ship. The old light cruiser, Hermes, launched in 1898, was converted to a seaplane carrier. Canvas shelters to hold aircraft were installed on the stern and forward of the bridge structure and aircraft-handling booms installed on the masts. [This pattern was frequently repeated with early seaplane carriers.] A launching ramp was added forward, extending over the bow. Trolleys to hold the floats allowed seaplanes to launch off the platform.”
While Hermes was converted to a seaplane carrier, experiments carried out with it led the Royal Navy to develop its first purpose-built one: HMS Ark Royal.
Even by today’s standards, the specs of this vessel sound impressive: a hangar and hatch for aircraft, as well as machine shops and fuel and stores capacities specifically for aircraft, along with a ballasting system to help keep the ship level while hauling the aircraft.
But as Landas explains, there was one major drawback: its top speed of 11 knots would make it highly vulnerable to U-boats.
The next step was a hybrid: the mixed carrier.
These vessels were designed to carry both sea and land planes, and, because of the differences in performance between these two types of aircraft, they ended up as launch pads for different kinds of missions.
The seaplanes flew at slower speeds and were better suited to operations over the water. The land planes were quicker and therefore deployed to intercept German Zeppelins, or on other important missions, since a normal aircraft could not return to the ship from which it was launched. It would have to either put down on land, or be ditched at sea, often without being recovered.
In fact, Landas points out that German pre-eminence in airship technology is a large part of why the British became pre-eminent in the area of naval aviation. The operational range of Zeppelins was vast in comparison to that of early airplanes, and so ships were required that could carry British planes closer to where they were needed.
The first British naval air raid was launched in December 1914 against the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven in north Germany. The planes took off from three ships that had been converted to carry aircraft - HMS Engadine, Riviera and Empress – and aimed to cripple the Zeppelins while they were on the ground, in their sheds.
In the event, only one bomb from one of the seven aircraft launched managed to hit one of the Zeppelin sheds, and this only happened by chance. Though this was still another pioneering step in naval aviation, being only the second ever carrier strike, and something that Lardas refers to as the ancestor to the carrier strikes carried out during the Second World War.
(The first carrier strike was launched by the Japanese against an Austrian ship near the German colony of Tsingtao in China earlier in 1914).
How To Land A Plane On A Ship?
The British end of the naval arms race was also influenced by Zeppelins in another way. Despite the early strike by the Japanese mentioned above, no ship was sunk by a carrier-based airplane attack during the first 17 months of the war. Instead, naval aircraft became more useful as reconnaissance assets, and this too led to a kind of arms race, with British airplanes attempting to shoot down Zeppelins performing reconnaissance for the German navy.
Because the flight ceilings of seaplanes were limited by the heavy floats on the bottom of their landing gears, it became ever more necessary to use lighter, conventional aircraft at sea, since these alone could reach the Zeppelins.
It was this that led to the development of the aforementioned mixed carriers that could take both kinds of aircraft.
This, though, meant solving the problem of how to land a plane on a ship once and for all.
In 1917, one daring pilot did manage to land his plane (a Sopwith Pup) aboard one mixed carrier, HMS Furious. He did this by flying it alongside the ship as it was cruising and then turning and parking the aircraft right on the flying-on deck.
This, however, was far too difficult a manoeuvre to ever become standard practice. (The pilot himself died when he attempted a repeat the experiment).
Another approach was needed.
The First True Aircraft Carriers
Furious in fact became more like a modern aircraft carrier when it was modified in March of 1918, though was still too far from ideal.
Its design featured a split deck with aft and forward flight decks and the ship’s superstructure in the middle.
This meant that the superstructure was always going to be an ongoing hazard for the aircraft, since they were always liable to crash into it if they overshot the flight deck or lost control during a landing.
The same was true of HMS Vindictive, a smaller version of HMS Furious.
So, the next step in the design process was the first true aircraft carrier, HMS Argus.
Built so that its hangar and superstructure both lay below the flight deck, this turned the entire upper deck of the ship into one long runway – something that established the pattern for modern aircraft carriers when it came into service in September 1918.
A Comparison Of HMS Furious, Vindictive And Argus:
Number of aircraft
786 ft 3 inches
10 (later 16)
By that point in the war, the Royal Navy had also begun putting aircraft aboard dreadnoughts and cruisers as well, so the requirement for mixed carriers had reduced. This development helped pave the way for vessels like HMS Argus and HMS Furious.
Argus was in fact part of an audacious air-raid plan towards the end of the war. Its flight deck was the only one within the Royal Navy sufficiently large enough to support the landing of several of a fleet of new torpedo-carrying planes - Sopwith Cuckoos.
Like the Pearl Harbour attack at the end of 1941, these were to be escorted to and then attack the German High Seas Fleet while it was at anchor in Wilhelmshaven. Though like JFC Fuller’s Plan 1919, it came too late to be enacted before the war’s end in November 1918.
However, Argus itself did see service in 1919, just not against Germany. Rather, it transported aircraft during the British intervention in the Russian Civil War that followed the First World War.
It also continued as fleet carrier during the 1920s and went on to serve during the Second World War.
Two of its main exploits during the conflict were the provision of air cover for the supply convoy heading to Malta during Operation Harpoon in 1942. Later that year, Argus also participated in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa.
Argus was damaged by a bomb during this later action, but was repaired and ended up as an accommodation ship, before being scrapped after the war in 1946.
It had had a good run. Having started life as cargo liner in 1914, Argus ended up with the Admiralty and its conversion to first and full aircraft carrier began two years later.
Once again, it is considered the ‘first’ aircraft carrier in that it became the template on which the design of aircraft carriers of the future were based, not only those of the era, but those in ours, such as today’s HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, or US equivalents like the USS George HW Bush.
An impressive legacy indeed.
To learn more about HMS Argus and its place in the early development of naval aviation, read ‘World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers’ by Mark Lardas, and read ‘The Zeppelin Base Raids’ by Ian Castle to learn more about attacks on Zeppelin bases during World War 1. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.